The events of the summer of 2020 showed us that many people of color feel threatened, not protected by law enforcement in this country. Even amid a global pandemic, millions of people took to the streets to demand police reforms that ensure that all Americans are treated the same, regardless of race or ethnicity. Their demonstrations, which were mostly peaceful, revealed pent-up anger over inequities in the treatment of minorities, particularly African-American men. And their cries for justice were finally heard by the many in positions of power and influence.
Change is imminent.
But some suggestions for police reforms have gone too far and threaten to undermine the ability of local law enforcement agencies to protect its citizens. Police forces across America are filled with men and women who don’t participate in what’s become known as “extrajudicial conduct.” Particularly in the greater Greensboro area, the vast majority of law enforcement personnel follow the laws and policies they’re sworn to follow during arrests, searches, interrogations and other common actions.
Finding Common Ground supports changes to law enforcement that recognize the value and humanity of all of our citizens, but allow police agencies to continue to do their jobs. Here are some ideas we support:
End discussions about defunding the police. Some leaders have argued that we need to disband local law enforcement agencies — and either reinvent them or use the money for something other than public safety. This idea is not only impractical, it is unnecessarily divisive, turning potential allies into opponents.
“Defunding” also means different things to different groups, which causes confusion about the motives behind the rallying cries. For some, it simply means reducing the budgets of police departments and funneling that money to social programs. For others, it means eliminating law enforcement from communities — a move the city of Minneapolis attempted to pull off in the wake of the George Floyd murder, but has of yet to fully implement.
Proponents of police reform should reconsider using the term “defund” in order to garner more support for its ideas from the broader community. It’s a position we share with former President Barack Obama, who told a Snapchat interviewer in December 2020 that “you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you're actually going to get the changes you want done.”
Empower law enforcement agencies to reinvent themselves as often as needed. While our communities must stop short of defunding police departments, our elected and appointed leaders must be able to review and reform the law enforcement agencies under their commands.
Take, for example, an action taken by the Greensboro Police Department in 2015. After an article in the New York Times highlighted the wide racial disparity in traffic stops and other police actions, then-Chief Wayne Scott issued a short-term suspension of traffic stops for minor infractions in the city. The result? The gap narrowed during the first 30 days of the suspension, with an almost equal number of Black and white citizens pulled over.
This is a perfect illustration of how a law enforcement agency can look inward, make tough decisions and adapt to new information.
Finding Common Ground
We recognize the inherent inequities of our criminal justice system, including our law enforcement agencies. Police departments and local governments around the country should use the protests during the summer of 2020 as an opportunity to reflect on and react to some of those systemic issues. But they need to be careful not to overreact by taking actions that make our communities less safe.
The majority of Americans agree. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2020, 58 percent of Americans believe local law enforcement agencies need to undergo major changes to making policing more equitable. But only 15 percent support the idea of abolishing policing agencies altogether.
It’s time for practical, sustainable police reforms in this country that make our communities safer and our policing practices more equitable.